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Vivian Fernandes
Monday , August 13, 2012 at 16 : 41

Delhi be warned: stay off the Taj on Independence Day


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I am writing this in the public interest. If you have nothing to do on Independence Day, please do not do it in Agra. The toll-free ride on the Yamuna Expressway (which the concessionaire Jaypee Infratech is offering till August 15) is a pleasure but do not fall for the charms of the Taj on that day. You are likely to regret it.

On Sunday, August 12, the people of Delhi expressed their vote of confidence in the developer by turning out in numbers. This was a repeat performance of the splendid Formula 1 event last October at the Budh International Circuit in Greater Noida. In waves and eddies they pulled up along the kerbs forming knots of visual delight. They marvelled at the surface, smooth as Hema Malini's cheeks (which Lalu Yadav had promised to turn Bihar's roads into during the 2005 election campaign though he denied it later). They absorbed the 165-km stretch of verdure on either sides, made lush by the monsoon rains and the seasonal flow of the Yamuna. They made mental calculations about property prices and likely investment options. In instalments, at every toll plaza, they checked out the loos (clean), and knocked on the restaurants (no grub).

The tyres skimmed on the cement road like pebbles thrown by truant schoolboys slicing the surface of a pond. The signs warning electronic vigilance and threatening prosecution for speeds above 100 kmph were unheeded for the most part. (Three days into the inauguration of the expressway, the first casualty happened when a speeding car hit the divider and overturned on Saturday night). The cars kept to the lanes by and large, but those that wanted to overtake did not care whether they did it from right or the left. Every now and then they swerved to avoid the carcass of a canine that had foolhardily ventured into 'big cat' territory.

Thoughts went back to 2010 and to Tappal in Aligarh, where four persons, including a boy and a policeman, were killed during protests against forcible acquisition of land for one of the five townships which the Jaypee group will develop to recover the Rs 13,000 crore investment in the expressway (there is no state equity). The farmers and their children were not opposing the highway. They had willingly surrendered triple-crop land for the road in the hope they would gain from the appreciation of value of the surrounding property. But the Mayawati government had brutally acquired the land (bulldozing tube wells, irrigation channels and standing crop), exercising the state's prerogative to confiscate private property for a public purpose, instead of giving the farmers a continuing stake in the prosperity which the expressway would create. Of course, they had been compensated well in terms of historical land prices. But not by future potential. By that measure, farmers are subsidising the project.

The journey from the expressway to the Taj on Sunday was an exercise in self-control. It took nearly two hours to navigate the short distance from the last exit with cars nearly kissing each other all the way through. The return journey was no better. It took slightly shorter. Around the Taj, cars spilt over from the parking lots on to the roads, with cops threatening to tow them away. At the Taj, there were hour-long queues. The administration should have anticipated the rush and made arrangements to cope or advised people in Delhi to stay away.

Sunday's experience shows that the city's administrators are unworthy of the legacy that Shahjahan left behind 360 years ago. No major investment has gone into the city since then. While the Taj is a marvel, the city itself is a joyless place where the principal economic activity is gypping the tourist. Any other city would have made a production of the monument with boat rides on the Yamuna, cafes and restaurants alongside, galleries, bars and nightclubs. Tourists should be making Agra the base from where to visit the other golden triangle cities - Delhi and Jaipur. But on average they spend less than a day in Agra. Bad roads are not the way to get them to spend more time there.


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More about Vivian Fernandes

Vivian Fernandes is a senior journalist with nearly 30 years of practice, 19 of them in television, all of which he spent at TV18. Vivian’s last assignment was as executive editor of a book on India and China written by the founder of the Network 18 group, Mr Raghav Bahl. He has been an observer of Indian business and politics, and had reported on economic policy making as reporter, chief of Delhi bureau of correspondents and economic policy editor. Vivian has traveled abroad with Prime Ministers Narasimha Rao, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. He was also reported on the World Trade Organization’s trade talks from Cancun, Hong Kong and Geneva. He continues his association with the Network18 group, but not as an employee.
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